Tag Archives: monastery

Mar Saba, a Judean Desert Monastery

Jerusalem sits on the edge of the Judean desert which make exploring this area a great day trip. It’s a fun adventure to take a jeep and drive off road where all you see is a barren landscape and suddenly bump into camels or have a a cluster of buildings come into view over the hill. It’s also a great place for a photo shoot.


Christian monks came to the quiet of the Judean desert in the early 4th century identifying with Moses, Elijah, Jesus and others who spent time here. Mar Saba, who lived at Euthymius for 12 years before receiving permission to live alone in the desert, found the spring and caves in the Kidron valley. Some 15 years later, in 483CE he built a laura, a cluster of caves for hermits around the monastery, that bears his name to this day.

This is the largest monastery complex in the Judean desert, multiple buildings enclosed by a wall and tower for protection. He directed it for 50 years. At its peak it accommodated hundreds of monks, today there are about 20 monks who live there. Women are not allowed inside the monastery, the closest they can get is to view the complex from the Women’s Tower; interesting that meat and apples are also prohibited.

As a guide, I can take you to experience the desert and discover that isolated monastery in the Kidron valley.

For more information about Mar Saba, including photographs inside the compound see the entry at the excellent BibleWalks site http://www.biblewalks.com/sites/MarSaba.html

It’s worth combining a visit with other sites in the area, the monastery of St. George tucked into the cliff in Wadi Qelt, the monastery of Euthymius and Martyrius, in the midst of an Industrial park and housing project respectively, museum of mosaics at the Inn of the Good Samaritan and Qasr el Yahud, the site on the Jordan River where according to tradition John baptized Jesus.

Khirbet Hanut Mosaic Vandalized

When you hire me as your guide I can take you places and show you things you probably won’t find on your own. Out of Jerusalem along highway 375 is the shell of a small stone building with a sand floor.

The site is from the Byzantine period, the ruins of a monastery with a mosaic floor including an inscription in Greek dated to 563CE. All you have to do is sweep aside the sand (put there to protect the mosaic).


Unfortunately, because the location is accessible somebody took advantage of this and two days ago destroyed the mosaic. According to the report in YNet Israel Antiquities Authority staff collected 23 bags full of the scattered stone cubes (tesserae) from the mosaic. I had even driven by the site on two different days last week on my way to photograph a field covered with thousands of red poppies and had thought to stop and take photographs but didn’t.

These photographs are from a few years ago and I post them here so that you can see what was destroyed. It is terrible when something like this happens.

Khirbet Hanut is not far from Khirbet Midras where the stunning mosaics uncovered in a Byzantine church were vandalized just over a year ago. I posted photographs of those mosaics in my article Khirbet Midras Mosaics.

Hiking Wadi Qelt – St George Monastery

Hiking Wadi Qelt is best in the early morning on the way down to the Dead Sea, a great place to experience the Judean desert and for photographs of the desert landscape.

From Jerusalem on highway <1> take the left at Mizpe Yericho, left again and left at the T. Park the car here for a great view of Wadi Qelt/Nahal Prat. Follow the black trail down to the stream bed. Here you will see the remains of the stone arches of the bridge of the aquaduct.

Continuing another 450 meters you’ll come to a wooden bridge that crosses Nahal Prat and to your left is the Ein Qelt pool. There are two possibilities from here: hike west along the streambed to a string of pools in Lower Nahal Prat or east along the red trail which will take you after about 2 kilometers to the monastery of St George of Koziba perched on the northern cliff.

From the monastery you can climb up to the road where you drive back to the highway or continue to the ruins of Herod’s fortress at Cypros.

Christian monks began to settle in the Judean Desert in the early 4th century identifying with Moses, Elijah, Jesus and others who spent time in the desert, as a respite from the secular world. By the fifth to seventh centuries, there were some 65 monasteries in the area: St. George, Martyrius, Euthymius, Deir Hijla, Mar Saba can be visited to this day.

Originally founded as a laura, a cluster of cells or caves for hermits about 420 CE, a small chapel was added later and about 480CE St. John of Thebes transformed the site into a monastery. In the 6th century it became known as St. George under the leadership of Gorgias of Koziba, born in Cyprus about 550 CE. The Persians destroyed it in 614 and it was rebuilt during the Crusader period but abandoned when the Crusaders were defeated and was reported in ruins by a pilgrim who visited in 1483. In 1878 a Greek monk, Kalinikos, settled here and restored the monastery, completing it in 1901.

According to tradition this is the place where Elijah stayed when God commanded him to leave King Ahab during the drought and was fed by ravens:

5 So he went and did according unto the word of the LORD; for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before the Jordan.

6 And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.

I Kings 17

There is also the story that Joachim, father of the Virgin Mary, hid here for forty days bewailing the barrenness of his wife Anne, whereupon an angel came to him to announce that Anne was pregnant with a daughter.

Christian 4-day itinerary

This is a sample multi-day itinerary that I created for a woman who was traveling with her 16 year old son. They have a family tradition that for the child’s 16th birthday s/he can choose a destination that s/he would like to visit. This son choice Israel. I met them at Masada on their way from Eilat to Jerusalem.

“Thank you for helping to make our trip to Israel so memorable!
Without your vast grasp of the beautiful land of Israel and Jerusalem we would have been lost…
Thanks for your great service. Take care and good luck with your guiding.”
Day 1
  • Masada
  • Dead Sea: PEF marker, sink holes
  • Qasr el Yahud baptismal site
  • Saint George’s monastry, Wadi Qelt

Day 2

  • City of David: Hezekiah’s tunnel, Siloam Pool, Herodian street
  • Walking tour of Old City
    • Arab shuq
    • Roman Cardo, Madaba map
    • Mount Zion: Dormition Abbey; King David’s Tomb; Last Supper


Day 3

  • Peace Forest at Ramat Rahel and archaeological excavations
  • Israel Museum: 2nd Temple model; Shrine of Book
  • Mahane Yehuda
  • Back to Old City
    • Bethesda Pools; Church of Santa Anna
    • Tomb of Virgin Mary in Kidron valley
    • Garden of Gethsemane; Church of the Agony
    • Via Dolorosa
    • Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Day 4

  • Emmaus
  • Trappist monastery at Latrun
  • Walking tour of Jaffa
  • To airport

Negev touring and Dead Sea

Here’s a 2-day itinerary to explore and understand the desert.

Day 1 – Arad to Avdat: geology, water and Nabateans
  • Ein Yorqeam
  • Makhtesh HaGadol: colored sand, petrified trees
  • Ben Gurion’s tomb
  • Lake Yeruham, we saw 1000s of storks
  • Avdat, Nabatean/Byzantine city
  • overnight at Carmei Avdat (on cheese/wine route) on site of Nabatean farm, rock drawings, wine tasting
Day 2 – Negev to Dead Sea to Jerusalem
  • Makhtesh Ramon: HaMinsara – black prismatic rocks, Ein Saharonim – Nabatean caravanseri on the Spice route,
  • Synagogue at Ein Gedi from Roman/Byzantine period
  • St George’s monastery, perched on the cliff at Wadi Qelt